It isn’t always easy to decide where to begin – or end – your story. Many authors take too much time “warming up” instead of starting a scene where something is happening. Others (or the same ones) trail on too long at the end, perhaps trying to explain everything that happened. But a strong beginning and a satisfying ending are important – and “bookends” may help you decide what those should be.
Strong stories have a distinct beginning (introducing the main character and problem), middle (where the character tries to solve the problem), and end (where the character succeeds or fails, and possibly learns a lesson). A story can feel especially satisfying if the end clearly echoes the beginning.
Perhaps a character has gone on a journey, and at the end he returns home. Maybe she starts by struggling with some physical task, and at the end she succeeds. Or he’s resisting a change, and embraces it at the end.
When the final setting or situation is similar to the opening, creating “bookends” to the middle, the pattern feels satisfying. It also helps tie the story together and ensure it hasn’t wandered off on tangents.
Review but New
While the ending echoes the beginning, it shouldn’t duplicate it. With a few exceptions, a story requires change. Quite likely, a problem has been solved. Hopefully, the main character has grown. The traveler returns with a new appreciation for his home. The woman who thought she’d never make it as a dancer is satisfied with her progress. The boy who wanted nothing to do with the new baby appreciates having a sibling. They haven’t merely solved the problem; they’ve changed how they feel about the situation.
The ending scene illustrates the changes by using a scene or language similar to, but slightly different from, the opening. If you open with a girl trying to hit a baseball, close with her back at the same park, swinging at a baseball again. Try making the circumstances as similar as possible, with the same weather and other characters present. The bookend format doesn’t work if you end at a different point, such as with the character at home telling her parents what happened, even if the problem was solved in the same way. You want the echo of a similar scene. This can help you figure out where to end, so you don’t stop too early or drag on too long.
You might even use similar language, with small shifts to show what’s changed.
Here’s an example from my story “One Froggy Night,” (published in Highlights for Children):
I pulled back the blinds and stared into the wet night. I shivered, glad to be indoors. When Dad got home, maybe we’d play video football. This was a night to play games and drink hot chocolate.
Dad draws the child outside, where they find dozens of frogs hopping in the rain. After this outdoor adventure, the story ends with the characters still outside.
As we walked toward home, I said, “This night just needs one thing to make it perfect.”
“What’s that?” asked Dad.
While the characters don’t return home before the scene ends, the repeat of “hot chocolate” echoes the beginning, while showing that the character has learned the appeal of both exploring outside and a cozy night at home.
For short stories and books for younger children, bookends maybe quite obvious. In novels for older children and for adults, the link may be subtler. For example, my middle grade mystery set in ancient Egypt, The Eyes of Pharaoh, opens with the main character running. She meets up with friends, discusses the dance contest she wants to win, and shows off her dancing skills. At the end of the book, she has the opportunity to dance surrounded by her friends. They’re in a different location and much has changed, but the elements of friendship and dance are included in the opening and final scene.
Bookends aren’t necessary for every story, but by thinking about bookends, you may find a natural ending point for your story. Don’t end too early, before you’ve had a chance to echo the beginning. And don’t go on too long, traveling past the natural bookend.
Using bookend scenes is one form of showing rather than telling. The reader can see how things have changed, and whether or not the change has satisfied the main character. This typically suggests the theme, so you don’t need to explicitly point out the lesson learned. With bookends, you can illustrate the change in the character or situation subtly but clearly.
Review your beginning when you work on your ending, and let the echo of a bookend bring your plot to a satisfying conclusion.
About Chris Eboch
Chris Eboch is the author of over 30 published books for young people, from middle grade novels to educational nonfiction. She is a popular writing workshop leader and she has critiqued dozens of novels and hundreds of short stories. Chris has published two writing craft books: Advanced Plotting and You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.
Check out Chris's book:
Advanced Plotting is designed for the intermediate and advanced writer: you’ve finished a few manuscripts, read books and articles on writing, taken some classes, attended conferences. But you still struggle with plot, or suspect that your plotting needs work.
This book can help.
The Plot Outline Exercise is designed to help a writer work with a completed manuscript to identify and fix plot weaknesses. It can also be used to help flesh out an outline. Additional articles address specific plot challenges, such as getting off to a fast start, propping up a sagging middle, building to a climax, and improving your pacing. Guest authors share advice from their own years of experience.
Read the book straight through, study the index to find help with your current problem, or dip in and out randomly — however you use this book, you’ll find fascinating insights and detailed tips to help you build a stronger plot and become a better writer.
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